Dick Pettys, long-time AP political reporter, is dead

Long-time Associated Press political reporter Dick Pettys has died of an apparent heart attack, according to Matt Towery, the chief executive of InsiderAdvantage.

Towery said he was informed of Pettys’ death by one of his sons. Pettys, who covered Georgia doings at the state Capitol from Lester Maddox until Sonny Perdue, was either 66 or 67, according to Towery. From an interview with Bob Short for an oral history series in 2010:

After retiring from the AP, Pettys worked for several years as the chief editor for InsiderAdvantage, the online political report. He had recently retired to a log cabin, of which he boasted to his friends, in north Georgia.

Pettys came to the state Capitol in 1970, as Maddox, Georgia’s last segregationist governor, was finishing up his single term. “My personal reaction was this. I guess I was 25, maybe,” he said. “I thought, “How in the world was I going to compete with these guys when I’m carrying this huge news service?”

In this case, the answer was Maddox’s chief of staff, Zell Miller.

“I went into see him,” Pettys said. “I was right surprised. He actually treated me as I was one of the group. I remember to that to this day.”

I’d chatted with Dick only a few weeks ago, before a recent encounter with Miller, who has also retired from politics. We’ll be waiting for more details. Until then, our best to the Pettys family.

One of the few remaining perks of being a journalist is a decent obit when you go. Here’s what Don Schanche Jr. and his colleagues at the Associated Press put together last night:

ATLANTA (AP) — Dick Pettys, a longtime political reporter for The Associated Press who was a fixture at the Georgia state Capitol for more than three decades and a well-respected mentor to other journalists, died Monday. He was 66.

He died following a massive heart attack Monday afternoon at his north Georgia home just outside of Clarkesville, said his son Richard R. Pettys Jr.

Pettys covered Georgia politics from the time of Govs. Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter through the end of the Democratic Party’s political control of the state and the election of Georgia’s first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.

“For years, Dick was every Georgian’s eyes and ears on the state budget and those who controlled it,” said Maryann Mrowca, the AP’s assistant bureau chief for the South Atlantic Region. “Even when politicians did not like what he reported, they knew he was fair, accurate and kept the same eagle eye on all in power to make sure they were held accountable for their actions and inactions.”

Dubbed the “dean” of the Capitol press corps, Pettys was a fixture under the Gold Dome for 35 years. An insider with a reputation for evenhanded reporting, he had the ear of everyone from governors and House speakers to low-level clerks.

His death stunned current and former leaders in Georgia politics and journalism.

“I’m very saddened. Dick was a newspaperman’s newspaperman,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes. “He was a fixture at the state Capitol and knew more about what was going on than anybody I knew. He was quiet but thorough.”

Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage Georgia, was Pettys’ boss after Pettys retired from the AP in 2005.

“I’m heartbroken,” Towery said. “He was a fabulous guy. There was only one Dick Pettys.”

Bill Shipp, a longtime political columnist and a Georgia journalism institution in his own right, knew Pettys from the beginning of Pettys’ career covering politics.

“Dick over the years set the standard for the rest of us as a down-the-middle reporter who knew how to bring the news to everyone in a clear, concise and unbiased manner,” Shipp said. “He was the best there is. His profession, we journalists, will miss him.”

Joan Kirchner, now deputy chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., worked alongside Pettys in the AP’s Capitol office throughout the 1990s.

“He was a legendary reporter and a Georgia institution. And he was the best mentor I could have asked for when I arrived at the Capitol wet behind the ears not knowing who to talk to or what to do,” Kirchner said.

“He taught me so much in the time I spent covering the Georgia Legislature,” added Michael Giarrusso, AP bureau chief for Arizona and New Mexico who worked with Pettys at the statehouse in the early 1990s. “Never compromise your ethics or morals to get a story. … Never back down to bullies, even if they are in high office. Don’t dare show bias in anything you do. And it was OK to have fun. I never smiled more at work than I did working with Joan Kirchner and Dick Pettys.”

Sonya Ross, the AP’s Race and Ethnicity editor, covered the Georgia Legislature from 1989 to 1992 with Pettys.

“Dick was a golden person, and he was always just so respectful and so good,” she said. “I’m just really shocked. I learned so much about politics just being around him.”

Aaron Gould Sheinin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Capitol bureau recalled the Georgia Senate honoring Pettys upon his retirement from the AP. The chamber allowed him to speak from the rostrum. “First time that had happened,” Sheinen said of such treatment for a reporter. “We joked and called him ‘The senator from the 57th,’” a play on how the senators — who hail from 56 districts around the state — address one another on the floor.

Over the years, Pettys butted heads with many of those he covered. His son recalled hearing of one instance when Pettys revealed and disrupted a legislative plan to carve out a sweetheart congressional district for then-state Rep. Sam Nunn.

“In the rotunda of the Capitol, Sam Nunn comes up to dad and sticks his finger out at dad and says, ‘You have nullified me.’”

Yet Nunn and other leaders knew they would get fair treatment from Pettys, the son said.

“He prided himself on being fair and balanced before fair and balanced was cool,” he said.

In addition to Richard R. Pettys Jr., Pettys is survived by his wife, Stephanie S. Pettys; two other sons, William Howland Pettys II and Clement Nelson Pettys; a brother, William Pettys Jr.; and a sister, Barbara P. Macon.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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41 comments Add your comment

Dan McLagan

October 8th, 2012
9:37 pm

That is very sad. Dick was a class act and a terrific reporter.

Brian Robinson

October 8th, 2012
9:38 pm

A true and great
gentleman. He took me to the site of that beloved cabin two years ago and invited me back up to see it recently now that it’s complete. He’s an important figure in Georgia political history. I’m terribly sorry to hear this news.

Jane Langley

October 8th, 2012
9:43 pm

With his wit and insight, Dick pushed us all to think a little more and work a little harder. The stars are a little brighter tonight with Pettys among them.Total class act.

George Hooks

October 8th, 2012
9:45 pm

Jim, Thanks for the sad news. Dick was a great friend & reporter. He had real talent, and always knew where to go to get the facts. All of the capitol family will miss him. An all around good guy.

Edward Lindsey

October 8th, 2012
9:45 pm

Georgia has lost a journalistic giant tonight. A true gentleman and a great reporter.

Joel McElhannon

October 8th, 2012
9:48 pm

One of the greats in his profession and modern Georgia politics. We lost one of the good guys today. I always enjoyed hearing his anecdotes, markers for where we are and how far we have come. His perspective and keen insight will be missed.

Jaillene Hunter

October 8th, 2012
10:03 pm

I am so sorry to hear this sad news. Dick was not only talented and respected, but he truly cared about others. He had the rare talent to do the job he needed to as a reporter while building friendships along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He will be greatly missed!

Melita Easters

October 8th, 2012
10:09 pm

Dick earned the great respect everyone who worked with had the old fashioned way — by hard work, a wide network of sources, accurate, fair reporting and long hours. He had a quick mind and a vast storehouse of knowledge which he utilized to great advantage for his readers. Few at the Capitol were so well respected. He was a good man and will be greatly missed. He set a high standard for all those who followed.

Richard Moore

October 8th, 2012
10:12 pm

I am really saddened at this news. Dick was a fine reporter and a true gentleman. I met him in 1972 and he was very helpful to me as a new person covering the state capital. We shared many committee meetings, press conferences, conventions and all the rest of a reporter’s daily routine. The true fun was slipping away from the capitol and going to that BBQ joint on McDonough (Harold’s??) with Dick, Prentice Palmer and Selby McCash and listening to their stories. Dick was a fine reporter. I am so sorry he didn’t have more years to enjoy his North Georgia retirement home.

John Sorrells

October 8th, 2012
10:14 pm

Dick was what journalists today should aspire to be. He took me under his wing when I covered my first Georgia General Assembly session in 1979 and became both a mentor and friend during the three other sessions I covered. With an ever-present pipe and a wry sense of humor, he clearly was the dean of the Capitol press corps. He provided the model that ultimately made me a much better reporter in covering politics because I measured my copy against the standards he set and to which he adhered. As others have said, Georgia lost a journalistic legend today.

Tammy Lloyd Clabby

October 8th, 2012
10:14 pm

A fine, fine journalist and wonderful man. He raised the bar for covering the Capitol for many of us.

Steve Dykes

October 8th, 2012
10:26 pm

Dick’s coverage of the Georgia Capitol complex in the 70’s and 80’s was admirable. He broke story after story. Many of us often were caught sprinting to catch up to his wire reports. Not only that, he was a good man who I was glad to know as a competitor and a friend. Rest well, Dick.

Andre Walker

October 8th, 2012
10:28 pm

Dick Pettys truly was a giant of Georgia political journalism.

I remember the first time meeting Dick in 2007. He not only wished me luck covering politics under the Gold Dome; he also offered his help and advice. Dick Pettys was a political news reporter to both admire and respect. When he retired in 2008, I said the State Capitol would seem just a little bit empty without Dick Pettys there taking notes, interviewing lawmakers, and generally keeping people in the know of what’s going on in state government.

The same holds true today..

Katie Wood

October 8th, 2012
10:33 pm

Dick not only was a great reporter, but he was also a good family man. And a helpful, wonderful friend. He was one of those people who would say, What can I do to help? and mean it. Like the time he rehung my bathroom door that I had taken off the hinges to accommodate a wheel chair. I very much enjoyed all the time we spent as colleagues in the state Capitol press room.

Russ Toal

October 8th, 2012
11:07 pm

A true loss. Dick’s zeal for the news was always tempered by his determination to get it right. He was hardworking, nonpartisan, ethical and wonderfully sardonic. He will be missed. There are very few who could claim to be his equal.

RIP: Dick Pettys — Peach Pundit

October 8th, 2012
11:13 pm

[...] more than 35 years for the Associated Press, and later for InsiderAdvantage, before retiring to his cabin in north Georgia last year. Pettys had been honored on his first retirement by the Georgia Senate in 2008, but kept writing [...]

Bill Cotterell

October 8th, 2012
11:43 pm

I’m so sorry to hear this. Dick and I were good friends when I worked for UPI at the Capitol, 1974 to 1984. He was a fine man and great reporter.

Chris Riggall

October 9th, 2012
12:17 am

Absolutely devastating news. In many ways Dick was a character out of central casting — a professional journalist of Jimmy Stewart rectitude who was dogged, professional and, more than anything, fair minded. His knowledge of the state budget was unmatched and his ability to separate fact from spin (including when I was spinning him) was likewise unequaled. Dick knew so much that most had forgotten or never knew, and that deep well of wisdom and insight benefited countless readers over the decades. Whenever I’d visit him at the Capitol Bureau he’d welcome me with “Sit down, and tell me what’s going on.” I had relatively little to impart, but his stories and insights would fill you up. I’ll cherish those conversations forever. Much more than a great journalist, what a great person we have lost.

John Futch

October 9th, 2012
12:36 am

Dick was a wonderful friend and colleague from my youth. What a loss to us all.

David Simpson

October 9th, 2012
12:38 am

It’s unbelievable that I won’t hear Dick’s Zell Miller impression at least one more time. Or his discourses on the “people’s bidness.” (I don’t know when I’ve laughed harder.) Or his favorite retort to all picky complaints about nuances in copy: “That’s what editors are for.” I think he loved all the characters in the statehouse and the newsroom, which is why people who got skewered by him still respected and liked him. He especially loved the hurly-burly House. I would come running to him with some hot debate from the Senate, and he’d snort, “Senate bombast.” Generations of cubs like me lived for his highest praise for hustle: “You’re a hard dog to keep under the porch.” Dick could have gone to Washington to cover the Carter administration. So many of us were so lucky that he decided to stay in Georgia. It’s just not the same state without him.

Joe Fleming

October 9th, 2012
2:32 am

One of the truly good guys. Fair, consistent, objective, accurayte, and a good friend. Dick Pettys will be missed. When he retired, a massive void was created.

Charles Edwards

October 9th, 2012
5:50 am

I was immediately saddened by this news. I remember starting as a political reporter and starting to cover the Gold Dome. Dick was one of the small handful of reporters I admired because of his style. His articles were always chalk full of facts and historical perspective.

I remember riding MARTA with him after a press conference and I tried to pick his brain for any advice he could offer. He was always very nice to me. I admired his humble approach to reporting. We’ve lost a good man.

Ann Hicks

October 9th, 2012
7:04 am

What sad news. When I first went to work in the State Elections Division, Dick was the first reporter I had ever dealt with. He was always so kind, fair, and patient. Whenever we would run into each other over my working carrer, we would reminisce about “old election events” we had experienced, many funny, some not so funny. He will truly be missed.

David Price

October 9th, 2012
8:40 am

As a green reporter, I covered the Legislature for several weekly papers in the mid ’80s. Looking back on it now I am astonished at how helpful Dick was in explaining the ins and outs of the statehouse to me and other newbies. At the time, I thought that was how all reporters worked. Not so. Dick was one of a kind, and he will be missed.

Wendy Davis

October 9th, 2012
8:56 am

The glowing obit is exactly what he deserves – class act in every way. Wish there were more journalists like Dick! Prayers for peace to his family as those who knew him mourn the loss.

Ted McMahan, Jr.

October 9th, 2012
9:56 am

I first meet Dick and his wife Stephanie around 1979 when our son enter the Cub Scouts and Stephanie was the Pack leader. When our son went into Troop 455, Dick was the Scoutmaster and had a genteel way of working with these young men.
About a year or two later, Dick asked me to become his assistant. By the time my son and the other young man his age reached their last year in scouting, I belive that 10 or more of these young men had reach the rank of Eagle Scout. This shows the guidance and leadership that Dick showed to these scouts.
One of the HIGHLIGHTS of helping Dick, was when we took about 8 scouts to the Philmont Scout Ranch on the 75th Anniversary of Scouting. During the trip, Dick told me a story about a run in with Bert Lance and the sheriff of that county. I laugh half way across the US.

David Morrison

October 9th, 2012
10:12 am

As a statehouse reporter for The Constitution for a number of years, my fondest memories often involve Dick Pettys. He set set the bar for thorough, accurate beat reporting. Even though we were the same age, I always thought of him as the “elder statesman.” A really good day at the capitol for me was having Pettys re-write or follow up on one of my stories for the AP, which meant I had beaten him. But most of the time, it was the other way around. As friendly competitors we also had a great run of pranks on one another, and he was as competitive in that endeavor as he was in gathering and reporting the news.

Michael Dowling

October 9th, 2012
10:13 am

Dick was a great political reporter, keeping all of us political and public relations folks on our toes, honest and in fear of him interviewing our candidates. Dick knew the issues better than the candidates, kept them honest and very mad when they tried to fudge on the facts and he put it in his coverage. Dick was the eyes and ears on the Capitol for the entire state and not much got passed him. He was fair and even in his coverage. He should be a model for all political reporters.

Walter Jones

October 9th, 2012
10:23 am

When people complain about the biased media, they aren’t talking about Dick. I worked beside him for more than a dozen years and still have little idea of his politics. I do know he disliked corruption, waste and stupidity, but he found plenty of that in both parties and all political stripes. He was also the opposite of the Hollywood image of the gruff, sarcastic reporter who broke news by being a bully. Instead, his fairness and good nature led sources to seek him out with information. He got quotes when folks wouldn’t call the rest of us back and daily scoops almost without trying because his secret was being evenhanded and a gentleman. And the state of Georgia benefited in so many instances from what he uncovered, the bad legislation his reporting stopped and the crooked politicians that his stories exposed. That made him every bit the public servant as the people he covered, and in many cases much more so because he wasn’t in it for his ego or his pocketbook.

Brian Rell

October 9th, 2012
10:29 am

A very sad loss, both as a person and for the profession of journalism. As I was telling a friend in the business, Dick was the type of ‘old school’ journalist we could use more of today: the political and intellectual acumen to root out the real story despite spin and the ethics to write it in a fair, even-handed way.

I look at the stories above and it would warm Dick’s heart to know that he touched so many people. As a fresh out of journalism school press secretary working on my first statewide political campaign in the early 1990’s, I was fortunate enough to start working with Dick and got to know him over the ensuing years … from a state fly around on a plane with questionable mechanics (the landing gear had ‘difficulty’ engaging during a stop to Vidalia) to meeting for coffee to discuss the current state of play in politics, i was fortunte enough to learn from Dick’s encyclopedic knowledge of political history, process and professionalism.

Many years and many different campaigns in many different states later, Dick’s reporting remains to be the standard by which others aspire.

Rest well, Dick Pettys. You will be remembered as one of the best in the business …and missed.

Rex Granum

October 9th, 2012
10:39 am

It was impossible to not like Dick Pettys. As so many have testified, he was a superb down-the-middle reporter. Few frills. Just the facts, and plenty of them. In his life’s work, he demonstrated a remarkable combination of tenacity, accuracy, hard work and calmness under pressure. Dick’s abilities as a reporter were exceeded only by his qualities as a human being – warm and approachable with a wry sense of humor, and deeply proud of his family. He will be sorely missed.

Rick Sibly

October 9th, 2012
11:40 am

I am saddened by the news. Dick was a great person, a great Scout Leader, and a great friend.
Dick was so much more than a news reporter, he was a leader of young men, a Boy Scout Troop Leader for 10 years, and a the young boys great mentor.

Jon Shirek

October 9th, 2012
12:04 pm

My deepest condolences to the Pettys family. Dick was an awe-inspiring journalist. And many, many of us would watch him and try to learn from him and be better at what we do from the examples he set every day.

For many years, right there at the old, outdoor tourist overlook at Tallulah Gorge, there was a framed newspaper article posted on the weathered pine wall. It was from July, 1970: the detailed account of Karl Wallenda crossing the gorge on his tightrope. It was “by Dick Pettys, AP.” I reminded Dick a few times over the years “that article is still up there,” and he would smile, genuinely pleased, I think, at that small recognition that he wrote the definitive report of a death-defying stunt, a swell day at the circus for all.

Dick loved his work, loved the people, loved the scoundrels and heroes, all, and loved telling those stories just by letting the facts speak. That was Dick, walking a journalistic tightrope, conquering it, out of a sense of public service, seemingly effortlessly, deadline after deadline.

David Lundy

October 9th, 2012
12:09 pm

Dick Pettys was always helpful to me when I worked at the statehouse in the ’80s as a young reporter. Widely respected, he set the bar for the rest of us. He was an asset to Georgia as the most consistent and knowledgeable hard news reporter in the state, and he was warm and engaging. Dick will be missed.

David Cox

October 9th, 2012
12:26 pm

I knew Dick through scouting. He and my wife were classmates at North Fulton ‘63. He was Scoutmaster of Troop 455. My son joined the troop at the end of Dick’s tenure. When I started Crew 455 I asked him to come out of retirement and be our Committee Chairman. With his tenure as “dean” of the Capital Press Corps, and his time in Scouting he cast a giant shadow.

Merri Brantley

October 9th, 2012
1:14 pm

When I was director of the Senate Press Office, I worked with Dick Pettys on a daily basis. I may not have always liked what he wrote about my Senators, but he was always fair and he was one of the best writers ever. I also loved to hear stories of politics of long ago when there were true characters at the State Capitol. As the years went on, he also became a personal friend whom I shall miss each and every day. I deeply regret that I didn’t get up to the mountain and see his beautiful home. Learn from me. Don’t wait to go see people who mean something to you. We are not promised tomorrow.

Marc Rice

October 9th, 2012
2:32 pm

Rest in peace, DP. A great colleague and friend. Thanks for your support when I was starting out in the business and through the years, showing by example how a reporter can be both tough and fair.

yellowdog

October 9th, 2012
3:27 pm

condolences to his family; no one like him…..loved and respected. at the capitol we would refer to him as one of the Big Guns….and he was. Rest in peace, dick.

Barbara Nevins Taylor

October 9th, 2012
4:34 pm

I’m sorry to hear about Dick’s death. His thoroughness and attention to detail inspired me and forced me to work harder and do more when I reported from the Capitol in the late ‘70’s early ’80’s. Dick was fair and impartial with everyone, but I clearly remember then House Speaker Tom Murphy saying, “I love that Dick Pettys.”

Anne FitzHenry

October 9th, 2012
7:40 pm

Editors dream of working with someone like Dick, but rarely have the privilege. Dick was a treasure in so many ways (his imitations of Zell Miller are still in my head). His humility was striking. He loved Stephanie and his boys. We lost a great one.

Cathy Cox

October 9th, 2012
9:22 pm

From the time I came to the Capitol as a journalism student and legislative intern, Dick was my hero. He was dignified, persistent, and unfailingly accurate — no matter how long it took to get the facts right. He knew the workings of state government inside and out, and it was truly a pleasure to know him, to do an interview with him, and — always — to read his work. He was the very best, ever.